President Bush is presenting the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama today, a gesture that has already caused friction in US-China relations. The gesture is well worth making. But its full value will not be realized unless it becomes a step toward a fruitful dialogue between Chinese leaders and the Dalai Lama's representatives on forging a meaningful autonomy for Tibet.
Ideally, Bush and members of Congress who voted to confer this honor on the Dalai Lama would also absorb something of the exiled spiritual leader's deeply held beliefs on nonviolence and compassion. This would be a symbolic dimension of the event that has nothing to do with China. It would imply serious meditation by America's political leaders on the resort to war, the threat from climate change brought about by greenhouse gases, and tolerance for differences in the family of man.
China's foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, has voiced China's 'resolute opposition' to the award, and he warned that if China's objections are ignored, today's ceremony in the Capital Rotunda could have an 'extremely serious impact' on relations between Beijing and Washington. The Communist Party boss for the Tibet region, Zang Quingli, was even less diplomatic. 'If the Dalai Lama can receive such an award,' he said, 'there must be no justice or good people in the world.'
These angry complaints and threats from Chinese officials can only be properly understood against the background of a persistent propaganda line that they unfailingly repeat about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile. Despite the well-known public statements of the Dalai Lama sincerely supporting a solution of Tibetan autonomy within a unified China, Chinese authorities go on insisting that his talk about a greater degree of autonomy for Tibet is a devious subterfuge and that the Dalai Lama is in reality a 'splittist' who wants to separate an independent Tibet from the Chinese motherland.
The autonomy that representatives of the Dalai Lama have been proposing in intermittent discussions with Chinese officials would include a right of Tibetans to administer their own monasteries and religious institutions, to preserve their distinct language, and to have some control over the education of Tibetans in Tibet.
The reality is that Tibetans will not accept China's harsh colonization policy. The best hope for the future may lie in meetings like a conference on 'Autonomy in Tibet' that will bring together Chinese and Tibetan scholars at Harvard next month. Tibetan culture has recently become a subject of great interest for young people in China. Enlightened Chinese leaders should realize that it is in their national interest to respect and preserve the autonomy and uniqueness of Tibet.